Foundation for Economic Education’s Founder, Leonard E. Read, circa 1978, on How to Advance Liberty.
Leonard E. Read was an American economist and the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, which was the first modern free market think tank in the United States.
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE’s mission is to offer the most consistent case for the “first principles” of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.
For decades these ideals have been ignored to an alarming degree. Despite the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Empire, too many Americans do not seem to appreciate the very concept upon which the Founding Fathers established the American Republic.
After a stint in the United States Army Air Service during World War I, Read started a grocery wholesale business in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was initially successful but eventually went out of business. He moved to California where he started a new career in the tiny Burlingame Chamber of Commerce near San Francisco. Read gradually moved up hierarchy of the United States Chamber of Commerce, finally becoming general manager of the Los Angeles branch, America’s largest, in 1939.
During this period his views became progressively more libertarian. Apparently, it was in 1933, during a meeting with William C. Mullendore, the executive vice president of Southern California Edison, that Read was finally convinced that the New Deal was completely inefficient and morally bankrupt. Read was also profoundly influenced by his religious beliefs. His pastor, Reverend James W. Fifield, was minister of the 4,000-member First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, of which Read was also a board member. Fifield ran a “resistance movement” against the “social gospel” of the New Deal, trying to convince ministers across the country to adopt libertarian “spiritual ideals.” During the period when he worked for the Chamber of Commerce, Read was also deeply influenced by more secular figures, such as Albert Jay Nock, and, later, by Ayn Rand and the economists Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt.
In 1945, Virgil Jordan, the President of the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB) in New York, invited Read to become its executive vice president. Read realized he would have to leave the NICB to pursue fulltime the promotion of free market, limited government principles. He resigned as a result.
One donor from his short time at NICB, David M. Goodrich, encouraged Read to start his own organization. With Goodrich’s aid, as well as financial aid from the William Volker Fund and from Harold Luhnow, Read and Hazlitt founded the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946, which, in turn, helped to inspire Friedrich Hayek to form the Mont Pelerin Society the following year. For a period in the 1940s, philosopher Ayn Rand was an important adviser, or “ghost,” as they called it, to Read. In 1950, FEE published The Freeman, an early free market periodical, considered an important forerunner of the conservative National Review magazine, to which Read was also a frequent contributor. He continued to work with FEE until his death in 1983. Read authored 29 books, some of which are still in print and sold by FEE. He wrote numerous essays, including the well-known “I, Pencil“